August Equipper

Due to GCI’s Denominational Conference this month, this issue of “Equipper” has limited content. We’ll return in September with a full issue. In the meantime, enjoy the conference and the rest of your summer!

Kid’s Korner: RCL-synced lesson plans
Here is a resource you can use to prepare Children’s Church or Sunday School lessons that are synced with the Revised Common Lectionary.

RCL sermons for September
Here are four sermons synced with the Revised Common Lectionary, covering the 13th through 16th Sundays after Pentecost (in “ordinary time” between Pentecost and Advent):
Sermon for September 3
Sermon for September 10
Sermon for September 17
Sermon for September 24

In case you missed them last month, here are the sermons for August:
Sermon for August 6
Sermon for August 13
Sermon for August 20
Sermon for August 27

Kids Korner: RCL-synced lesson plans

Teach children how they should live, and they will remember it all their lives. (Proverbs 22:6)

Does your congregation follow the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) in its worship planning and preaching? If so, you might be interested in syncing your children’s church (or children’s Sunday school) lessons with the RCL weekly Scripture readings. To help you do that, the Episcopal Church publishes RCL-synced lesson plans designed for young (non-reading) children, older children and adults. You’ll find them at http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/lessons/.

These lesson plans follow the RCL with minor modifications. Adapting them for use in GCI would not be difficult. Note that these lessons are copyrighted and may not be copied without permission from the publisher.

-Ted Johnston, Equipper editor

Sermon for September 3, 2017

Scripture readings: Ex. 3:1-15 and Ps. 105:1-6, 23-26, 45b; 
(or Jer.15:15-21 and Ps. 26:1-8) Rom. 12:9-21; Matt.16:21-28 

Sermon by Dustin Lampe from Matt. 16:21-28 and Rom. 12:9-21

TOTAL SURRENDER (part 2)
GIVE IT AWAY!

Note: this is part 2 of a 2-part series titled "Total Surrender." For
Part 1 ("Give It Up!"), click here.

Introduction

In Part 1 of this series on Total Surrender, we looked at the passive side of surrender: Give It Up! Now in Part 2, we’ll conclude the series by looking at the active side of surrender: Give It Away!  We’ll do so by examining the words of Jesus and Paul, seeing 1) the steps toward total surrender, 2) the actions of the surrendered life and 3) the peace that results.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)
Opening story

Perhaps you’re heard theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s story. Raised in Germany in the early 1900s, he grew up in a large, well-to-do family. He loved to play sports and to play piano. In his early teens, he decided he was going to be a theologian. By the age of 20, he had written his doctoral thesis—a paper still widely read by even the most advanced students. Denominations will argue about the aptitude of great theologians such as Martin Luther, John Calvin, Karl Barth and Thomas Aquinas, but when it comes to Dietrich, rarely will you hear one try to argue with his teaching. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was, without a doubt, a genius and the Christian church around the world is indebted to him—both for his brilliant writing and for his example of total surrender.

In his early 20s, Bonhoeffer became a renowned professor. By his late 30s, he had accepted a position to teach theology in America. But there was something ominous going on back in Germany and Dietrich was filled with guilt as he sat at ease lecturing in America while his country descended into turmoil under the tyrannical leadership of Adolph Hitler.

After a few months of angst, he set sail back for his country full of confidence that God was calling him to return home to Germany where, tragically, the German church had come into submission to the German government. This change happened gradually, but soon the teachings of Hitler about a pure German race were accepted as Christian teachings. Some Christians readily accepted these teachings, while others did so out of fear. But Dietrich and some others openly objected. At his arrival in Germany, he was unable to openly teach Christian doctrine, so he formed an underground seminary where he taught students.

The question Dietrich faced was two-fold: “What do I do to stop this.” And “what is my call to action to participate with Christ?” Though he knew about, and had even taught about pacificism (accepting Jesus’ call to turn the other cheek), he came to believe that in this circumstance, Hitler should be executed. With a band of a few other people who had not bought into the delusional teaching of Hitler, he helped plan Hitler’s assassination, Those plans were carried out twice—once in a meeting and once on an airplane—both failed. Eventually Dietrich’s part in the assassination plot was discovered, he was imprisoned and, at age of 39, the German Gestapo executed Bonhoeffer by hanging.

1) The steps toward total surrender

What does Bonhoeffer’s story teach us about the surrendered life? To answer that question we need to look at what Jesus teaches in Matthew 16:21-28 concerning the steps toward total surrender.

In this passage, Jesus tells his followers that he is headed toward a time of terrible suffering. Peter objects, arguing that Jesus must not allow that to happen. But Jesus doesn’t take too kindly to Peter’s rebuke and warns him that is is thinking the way Satan does (telling him to “Get behind me, Satan!”). By focusing on mere human things, Peter is ignoring the things of God—the sovereign reign of God.

At this point, Jesus turns to the disciples and addresses the topic of total surrender. He tells them three things: 1) to deny themselves, 2) to take up their cross, and 3) to lose their life. Jesus wasn’t pulling any punches—he was making it clear what Christians are called to.

What is Jesus’ strategy here? Is he wanting to portray the Christian life as so humanly impossible that we’ll have to rely fully on God? Well, I see a couple of things that Jesus is doing here: First, he is offering a general call to all people to self-denial. Second, he is offering a specific call to each individual, saying they have a particular cross to bear, a particular life to lose. But how do we apply this personally?

First, we have to recognize that we have a particular self to deny. As each of us grew up, we formed a particular identity. That was true for Jesus as he formed an identity as he grew up—one that was particular to both his genetics and to the environmental context in which he was raised. Scripture says that as he grew up, he gained wisdom and also favor with both God and the people around him.

As each of us grew up a million factors shaped our emerging identity—our emerging self. Some of those factors were genetic (our DNA) and others were environmental. Some call this container formation.

What follows is an illustration from my own life— you will need to change the details to fit your life’s experience.

My container was shaped around working hard on the farm, playing baseball, making friends, going to a Methodist Church, being a white boy, the grief of my dad’s death when I was young, the anxiety of growing up in a mixed family when my mom remarried, etc.

However, these factors are not “Dustin.” Whether my little ego can handle it or not, “Dustin” is who Jesus Christ says I am. And to surrender to Christ and so deny myself, gives me the freedom to say with Paul, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20). In surrendering to God all that I labeled as “my life,” I find my life. By taking all that Christ says is “my life” seriously, I find my life.

The point here is that your life—the factors that define your identity—brings with it a particular cross to bear, a particular set of things to surrender to Christ. Your cross may be your own set of very hard circumstances. But those circumstances do not define your true identity. In Christ, you are not defined as depressed, happy, rich, poor, red, blue, but as something so much more… or, we might say as so much less.

Your container formation said you were these things, but in surrendering to Christ you embrace his claim as to who you are—God’s beloved child—regardless of the circumstances or what people might be saying.

2) The actions of the surrendered life

Let’s now look at what Paul says in Romans 12:9-21 about actively living out Jesus’ call to total surrender. We might call this “surrender in action.”

Following up on his call to us to be transformed (Rom. 12:1-8), Paul exhorts us in Rom. 12:9-21 to let that transformation happen by taking active steps in the direction of total surrender. He tells us to 1) hate evil and love good, 2) live in harmony, and 3) bless our enemies instead of seeking vengeance. His instructions clearly assume we will, at times, suffer in following Christ. However, it shows us that God provides a way to live through the suffering, thus overcoming evil with good.

The surrender Paul illustrates involves good works—action. Though Paul says in Ephesians 2:8-10 that it is by grace that we are saved, we are called as those saved to participate in the good works of Christ. When grace—God’s unconditional love for and favor toward all people—is deeply experienced and so valued, hard work and devotion to God becomes sheer joy. Grace and hard work thus go together. Good works are built on the solid rock of God’s grace! Though we are not saved by the works, the life that Christ gives us includes good works. Works apart from grace, or some effort to “earn” or “deserve” grace is legalism.

So here we learn from Paul that suffering is part of a life of total surrender and that our identity is grounded in the grace of God, not in our works, though in following Christ, we will be active participants in his work, which flows from grace.

3) The peace that results 

From Jesus words in John 16:33, we learn about the peace that results from total surrender to God. Speaking of his oneness with the Father and the troubles that are about to erupt, Jesus tells his disciples that though they face troubles in the world, in him they “may have peace.” This is the case because Jesus has “overcome the world.”

In making this pronouncement, Jesus is helping his disciples learn that, in the midst of life’s troubles (that often lead to anxiety-driven, frenzied activity), they can have peace—the peace that comes by trusting in the one who has overcome the world and its troubles through his own suffering and death.

Theologian Ray Anderson once shared a relevant illustration. He told of two people standing on a mountain top, looking out on a radiant scene below. One says, “I’m glad we made it here, now let’s get back to work.” Another, filled with wonder and worship, says “Let’s linger here a while, soaking in the grandeur of God’s creation.”

Sadly, here in the West, there is an anxiety-driven, even tyrannical sense of urgency—get more, do more, see more. But then there is Christ’s call to surrender—to surrendering the false values that are the basis for this anxiety in order to find our rest, our peace, in him.

Sadly, much of my early experience as a Christian was more about anxiety than rest. I was driven to be better, do more for God, hurry up and get more knowledge. I see that same perspective among many today. Their perspective on Christianity creates more anxiety than peace of mind.

We all need “space” in our lives to enjoy the view—to worship God, and so have peace of mind, despite what’s going on around us. That “space” includes time for prayer—time to sit in God’s presence and to enjoy the view. I recently asked a person in our church to volunteer and I can’t tell you how pleased I was when they replied, “No, I need to take more time and just sit with God.”

Conclusion

Don’t misunderstand my point. Total surrender to God is not passive—it involves focused action, as noted by Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

The Christian cannot simply take for granted the privilege of living among other Christians. Jesus Christ lived in the midst of His enemies. In the end, all His disciples abandoned Him. On the cross He was all alone, surrounded by criminals and the jeering crowds. He had come for the express purpose of bringing peace to the enemies of God. So Christians, too, belong not in the seclusion of a cloistered life but in the midst of enemies. There they find their mission, their work.

From the words of Jesus and Paul, and also Bonhoeffer, we learn that surrender to God is dynamic and active. But because it is grounded in the grace of God and involves trusting in and therefore resting in Christ, it brings about not anxiety and frenzy, but joy and peace. Actively surrendering to God yields a taste of heaven while living here on earth!

Make no mistake about it, as we surrender to God, we will encounter trouble. How well Bonhoeffer knew that! But no matter how dark it gets in the midst of that trouble, we know something more important—we know that we belong to God. Our identity as a child of God, which is our true identity, is not based on what’s going on around us. It’s also not based on what we do (or don’t do). Instead, it’s based on who God says we are, and what Jesus has done through his total surrender to God to secure that identity for us. In that, let us have peace. In that, let us rest. And based on that, let us join Jesus in the work he is now doing. Amen.

Sermon for September 10, 2017

Scripture readings: 
Ex. 12:1-14 and Ps. 149 
(or Ezek. 33:7-11 and Ps. 119:33-40) 
Rom. 13:8-14; Matt.18:15-20

Sermon by Ted Johnston from Matt. 18:10-20 and Rom. 13:8-10

EXHORTATION TO RADICAL GRACE

Introduction

In our readings today from Ex. 12, Ezek. 33, Rom. 13 and Matt. 18, we are confronted with the way of the Lord, which often is quite different and thus at odds with the way of the world. But a merciful God covers our sin (Ex. 12) and sends us teachers (“watchmen”) who call us to a better way (Ezek. 33), which is the way of love (Rom. 13). That way is perfectly exemplified in the radical grace lived and taught by Jesus (Matt. 18).

In today’s sermon we’ll focus on Matthew 18:10-20, which follows Matthew 18:1 where Jesus’ disciples asked him, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” In the rest of the chapter, Jesus answers their question in a way that is radical and thus unexpected. Jesus takes the normal order of things and turns it upside-down.

The upside-down values of Jesus

In Matthew 18:2-5, Jesus shows that the way of the kingdom of heaven contrasts sharply with the ways of the kingdoms of the world, including humanly devised religions.

The way of Jesus and his kingdom is the way of radical grace. Jesus makes that point by noting that the citizens of his Father’s kingdom will not be the powerful, elite and influential people, but those who, like “little children,” are without power and guile. Jesus welcomes such into his Father’s kingdom and urges his disciples to join him in doing so—join him in living the way of radical grace. Note Jesus’ admonition:

See that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that their angels in heaven continually see the face of My Father who is in heaven. For the Son of Man has come to save that which was lost. (Matt. 18:10-11, NASB)

Jesus is urging his followers to reject false understandings of “greatness”—ones that would cause them to look down on “little ones” who actually are “great” based on kingdom values. These little ones are great, not because of any merit of their own, but precisely because they are “little.” The Son of Man is out searching for these little ones who are said to be “lost” (note that verse 11 is a footnote in the NIV—that verse is not in the oldest manuscripts, though it is consistent with the point Jesus is making here). Jesus’ exhortation is not about the qualifications of the people being sought, but about the love and grace of the person who is doing the seeking. It’s also about an invitation to the followers of Jesus to embrace his values and join him in seeking the lost.

The Parable of the Wandering Sheep

This exhortation from Jesus is preceded (in Matthew 18:6-9) with a warning: Woe to anyone who would strip any of these little ones of the grace that God has given them, thus causing them to stumble. To emphasize this exhortation and warning, Jesus then tells his disciples what has come to be known as The Parable of the Wandering Sheep.

“The Good Shepherd” by Tissot
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Let’s take a look, starting in chapter 18, verse 12:

What do you think? If any man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go and search for the one that is straying? If it turns out that he finds it, truly I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine which have not gone astray. So it is not the will of your Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones perish. (Matt. 18:12-14, NASB)

Instead of looking down on and rejecting the lost and least (lowly and powerless), Jesus (and his followers with him), seek after such little ones. They do so not as a religious, law-based obligation, but out of grace and love, yielding great joy. Jesus’ heart here is the heart of the Father who is not willing that any people (represented as sheep) should be lost (and the Greek word translated “lost” can also mean “perish”).

Like his heavenly Father, Jesus is full of grace—in fact, Jesus is grace personified. Rather than shunning the lost, or requiring that they come after him; Jesus goes seeking after them. This grace-filled move on Jesus’ part creates a response of gratitude and trust. But even then, Jesus puts the lost sheep on his shoulders and carries them home. The point is clear: God saves by his initiative and power; we do not save ourselves.

Sometimes, Jesus takes radical action to call a wandering sheep back to himself. But note that the motive is always love for the sheep. In love, God sometimes disciplines his children, and that can be painful, though it’s always for their good, their salvation.

The Father’s tender care for humanity is emphasized in Matt. 18:10, which implies that each individual has an angel that represents them in heaven—what we’d call a “guardian angel.” That idea is found in the Bible only here, though elsewhere angels guard nations (Dan. 12:1) and churches (Rev 1:20). We can’t build a doctrine on this verse, but we can take comfort knowing that God watches out for us all—including those who are lost!

That is God’s heart of love and grace toward all people. What’s ours?

Instruction in Jesus’ way of radical grace

Jesus’ words here were, no doubt, hard for his disciples to swallow. You can just hear them: “But Jesus, what about a little one who is a sinner? Must we overlook their sin and accept them into our community with no conditions?” Note Jesus’ reply beginning in chapter 18, verse 15:

If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven. (Matthew 18:15-18, NASB)

Here Jesus explains how the principles he shared in Matt. 18:10–14 work out in a particular case. God’s grace, and his discipline of those he loves (all people), are not at odds. The context is within the fellowship of what we refer to as the church, though these principles apply elsewhere.

Jesus’ words are addressed to “you” (singular), the individual who is aware of the other person’s sin. Some translations (such as the NKJV) have in v. 15 the phrase “against you.” But that phrase is not in the earliest manuscripts. Adding it in incorrectly restricts the scope of what Jesus is saying here. He is addressing the danger a particular sinner (“lost sheep”) is in, and the responsibility that his disciples have in reaching out to help that sinner—to seek and save the lost sheep. The goal in going is not to punish, but to “win” them back—to see them restored and thus healed.

Like Jesus, who loves and seeks after sinners (Jesus’ love is active!), we are, in love and for love, to join him in doing the seeking! We are not to wait for the sinner to come groveling to us, seeking forgiveness. We are to take the initiative and go to the person.

We are reminded here that, because of what Jesus has accomplished through his incarnation, life, ministry, death, resurrection and ascension, all people everywhere are reconciled to God—God has forgiven and therefore accepted all. No one needs to earn what has already been given—they just need to reach back to the God, who already has wrapped his loving, forgiving arms around them. That, dear ones, is radical grace!

That being the reality, as followers of Jesus (those who have come to understand and so live into this grace) our job—our divine calling—is to seek out sinners and declare to them their forgiveness and acceptance.

How do we seek after them? Jesus says that we should minimize that amount of publicity, going one-on-one, or with a couple of other disciples. There is no need for fanfare, and certainly no need for coercive tactics! If the person we are seeking to connect with is a follower of Jesus caught up in some sin (they have gone “wandering”), and this initial outreach to them does not help, then (and only then) do we take this matter to the church in an official way. Should the offending disciple not respond to an appeal from the church, then the remaining course open to the church is to sever fellowship. Note, however, that the goal of this last-ditch step is not punishment but a strategy to bring about restoration.

The Great Shepherd’s discipline of his wandering sheep is always for their restoration. Even if Jesus has to discipline one of them, such discipline is always adminstered in love, with an eye toward restoration.

In taking disciplinary action, the church is exercising delegated authority in the same way Peter was given authority from Jesus in Matt. 16:19 (note that in Matt. 18:18, the word “you” is plural). The idea that the church on earth may bring the authority of heaven to bear on a particular situation involving discipline is continued in Matt. 18:19–20 (NASB):

Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven. For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.

The point is that the continued presence of Jesus among his people in situations where church discipline is being exercised ensures that their united prayers are effective. They are effective because they are in line with the truth that is in Jesus—the truth of the forgiveness and acceptance of all humanity in and through the Messiah.

But what about Jesus’ statement back in Matt. 18:17 (NASB) that an unrepentant sinning brother is to be treated as a “Gentile” (“pagan” in the NIV) or “tax collector”? This must be understood in the context of what we’ve already learned about Jesus, who is a friend of tax-collectors and sinners, and is lovingly sympathetic toward Gentiles. This statement is likely a traditional Jewish expression for ostracism, which Jesus here radically reinterprets, perhaps with a bit of humor and sarcasm thrown in.

I imagine that at this point in their journey with Jesus, his disciples were deeply troubled by their Lord’s call to live the way of radical grace. It would have sounded strange to them because this was not the way they had been taught by the Jewish teachers of the law—teaching that emphasized retribution and other ways in which people would get from God “what they deserved.” Jesus’ way is radically different—it’s the way of getting what you don’t deserve—God’s grace—the way the apostle Paul describes in today’s reading in the book of Romans:

Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. For this, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and if there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. (Romans 13:8-10, NASB)

Negatively speaking, love does no wrong to another person—it never seeks their harm, retribution or vengeance. In that way, love fulfills what the Law of Moses pointed to. Positively, love actively seeks after those who are lost (perishing)—it seeks their rescue—it seeks to bring them home. Paul applies this teaching in Romans 14 where he addresses reaching out in love to those whose faith is “weak.”

Conclusion

We are reminded today by our Lord of the way he is, and therefore the way he lives—the way of radical grace. We hear his exhortation to join him in his way of life, loving the lost and least, reaching out to them with grace, telling them of the Lord’s forgiveness and acceptance and his invitation to become one of his followers, who will then join him in his mission of rescuing the lost and bringing them home.

May we hear and obey our Lord’s word. Amen.

Sermon for September 17, 2017

Scripture Readings: Ex. 14:19-31 and Ps. 114 (or Gen. 50:15-21 and
Ps.103:1-7, 8-13) Rom. 14:1-12; Matt. 18:21-35

Sermon by Martin Manuel from Matt. 18:21-35

Immeasurable, Unlimited Forgiveness

Introduction

Our readings today address God’s justice, judgment and mercy. In justice, God judges our sin and in mercy provides forgiveness. He then invites followers of Jesus, who have received this forgiveness, to participate with Christ in forgiving those who have offended us. Our Gospel reading addresses two points about that forgiveness: 1) its frequency and 2) the relationship between divine and human forgiving. By looking at both, we’ll gain greater appreciation for God’s forgiveness and how we can apply it in our relationships.

Jesus teaching his disciples – from an Arabic translation of the Gospels
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The context of today’s Gospel passage includes Jesus instruction concerning offending people (Matt. 18:1-14) and responding to people’s offensive acts (Matt. 18:15-17). The narrative in today’s passage begins with the 12 disciples competing with each other. Perhaps the special trip by three of them to the mountain with Jesus (Matt. 17:1) provoked envy in the others. One of them asks Jesus who among them would be greatest in the kingdom. Jesus replies by pointing to a little child as being typical of his true followers. Like a little child, the person who inherits the kingdom will be humble and trusting.

Jesus then warns his disciples to be extremely careful not to offend such a person, thus causing them to sin. His instruction here seems extreme—gouging out an offending eye, cutting off an offending hand. Jesus was using exaggeration to make a powerful point in the context of a warning about offending his followers. He was noting that people often considered unimportant or unlovable are loved by the Father. In the same discussion, Jesus instructs his disciples concerning how they are to react when someone offends them. His instruction includes confronting the offender for the purpose of defusing the situation and achieving reconciliation. If the response to such efforts is rejection, Jesus explains that separation might be necessary. With this background in mind, let’s look at Matthew 18:21-35 verse-by-verse.

Peter’s question

Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” (Matt. 18:21)

Anyone who seeks to be forgiving will encounter this problem—what if the offender, having been forgiven, keeps doing the same offensive thing? This situation certainly draws out instinctive reactions geared toward retaliation! Having experienced this dilemma, Peter wonders when retaliation will be permissible. How tolerant should we be before deciding to break off our relationship with the offender?

Peter’s question suggests that he thought the answer had to do with the number of times the offence occurred. In seeking a limited number of infractions, Peter might have been generous to suggest seven, but he was still taking a legalistic approach. Recalling that Jesus had taught that in prayer we are to express forgiveness of others as we ask for forgiveness for ourselves, he wanted to be obedient. But in the absence of a forgiving heart, he was looking for a legalistic rule that he could follow and thus feel good about, after which he might feel free to wreak havoc on the offender!

Jesus’ response

Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” (Matt. 18:22)

Jesus did not give Peter the answer he sought. Peter suggested the number seven (the number of completion) as a generous limit. But Jesus confounded Peter’s legalistic reasoning by suggesting an absurdly large number, thus indicating that the number is without limit. Perhaps Jesus chose the number based on Lamech’s boast in Genesis 4:24: “If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times.” Lamech was boasting about taking vengeance, disproportionately greater than the offence, upon someone who would injure him. It was like saying, slap me and I’ll break your jaw! Jesus advocated just the opposite. To explain his response, Jesus told a parable:

Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. (Matt. 18:23)

“Parable of the Unforgiving Servant” by Vignon
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The king in the parable believed in holding his servants accountable. An important factor in this story is accountability. Jesus chose a story about money and debt to clarify important points about forgiveness. Obviously from the context, more than financial debt was involved. But the point of debt is the clear identification of the offender. The issue between the king and the indebted servant was neither the king’s fault nor even a shared fault between the two. The servant was at fault and owed the king payment.

For reasons not explained, the king decided it was time to settle the matter. The king brought the problem to the attention of the debtor as an offended person confronts the offender. Sometimes an offended person delays or avoids confrontation, continuing to bear the burden of the offender’s debt. Eventually, because the offended person loses patience or the debt grows larger, a crisis erupts, resulting either in a heated confrontation or in some form of discharge of the debt. To wait until a crisis erupts usually is not best.

As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. (Matt. 18:24)

The amount of money referred to here is huge. The word in Greek here translated “bags of gold” is talanton. The KJV translates it as “talents.” According to the New Bible Commentary, “Ten thousand talents combines the largest Greek numeral with the largest unit of currency.” Jesus was not suggesting an actual number; instead, he was describing an unimaginably large amount. In our culture, we might say “a zillion dollars.” The debt was beyond calculation.

Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt. At this the servant fell on his knees before him. “Be patient with me,” he begged, “and I will pay back everything.” (Matt. 18:25-26)

The debt was so large that everything the servant had, including his life, the lives of his family members, and all their possessions were required in payment. Overwhelmed by the enormity of this, the servant desperately asked the master to indefinitely withhold his anger. As if even he did not comprehend the size of his debt, he promised to pay it back.

The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go. (Matt. 18:27)

Though this sentence is short, it says a mouthful. The master took pity. Understanding the plight of the servant, and hearing his desperate plea, the master was moved. Literally, he felt “deep compassion” for his servant, and in the depth of that feeling he cancelled the debt. What a statement about the power of compassion! In this case, nothing else could have satisfied the enormous debt.

But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. “Pay back what you owe me!” he demanded. (Matt. 18:28)

In Greek, the phrase “silver coins” is denarii. One hundred denarii was equivalent to several months’ wages at the time. Although this was not a negligible amount, it cannot begin to be compared to the size of the debt that had been forgiven. Besides demanding payment, the servant threatened the debtor with violence. In movies, gangsters use such tactics to intimidate their victims into immediate compliance. Today, a call from a collection agency demanding immediate payment “or else” tends to pressure the debtor into swift action. The point is that the man who had received unlimited mercy showed not even a little mercy.

His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, “Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.” But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. (Matt. 18:29-30)

In the same words as the debtor with the immeasurable debt, this debtor, pleading for patience, promised repayment. Yet, he received no mercy. Instead he was put into a position of being incapable of repayment of a payable debt.

When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened. (Matt. 18:31)

To those witnessing this situation, the unforgiving behavior was outrageous. The words of poet Robert Burns seem fitting here:

Oh would some power the gift give us,
To see ourselves as others see us.

It is a strange quirk of human nature that we are virtually blind to ourselves. Everyone else sees, but we don’t. That’s not Jesus’ main point, but it is a related part to which we’ll return.

Then the master called the servant in. “You wicked servant,” he said, “I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?” In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. (Matt. 18:32-34)

Jesus refers to this unforgiving behavior as being “wicked.” To the legalistic mind, wickedness is to deliberately break a command—a command against a matter considered particularly evil. But Jesus’ story is not about breaking a particular command in the Law of Moses. Instead, he labels as “wicked” the withholding of mercy. To ignore mercy received, or to be so callous as to be unwilling to consider self in another’s shoes, is as sinful as an overt evil act against another person. The punishment administered to the unforgiving servant—torture in jail—fit the crime, because the unforgiving servant had administered similar punishment.

This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart. (Matt. 18:35)

Jesus was not bluffing in this stern warning. His heavenly Father has forgiven all human sin—in Christ, our debt has been cancelled. That debt was immeasurable, yet the Father forgave it all, extending that forgiveness to each person an unlimited number of times.

In comparison, the debts we humans owe each other are infinitely small. God expects us to do the unnatural for each other because he has done the unnatural for us all. God is looking for a real, heartfelt forgiveness, not a legalistic one.

Forgiveness in our lives

Let’s consider how this Gospel passage applies in our lives today.

Jesus’ answer to Peter’s question showed that forgiveness is a major part of the life of anyone who follows Jesus. It is a daily activity versus a once-in-a-while act. Earlier, Jesus had made this point in the Lord’s Prayer: “Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” To put these two requests together reveals the frequency of God-to-human and human-to-human forgiveness. We need to eat daily, and in relationships, because we are imperfect, we need to be forgiven and to forgive daily.

What we owe God cannot be measured. Thus how many times we are forgiven has no limit. The parable of the unforgiving servant emphasizes not only the importance of human-to-human forgiveness, but also the enormity of the proportion of God-to-human forgiveness.

Overriding our thoughts and the dynamics of our relationships with other people is the reality that we live in the amazing grace of enormous, immeasurable mercy freely granted to us by God our Father through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Dear ones, never consider your sin too great for God to forgive. Never think you’ve sinned one time too many. God’s forgiving grace is immeasurable and unlimited. Confess your sin to him, and trust in him that his grace through the blood of Jesus Christ covers it, enabling you to receive it with gratitude. Then, realize that the same grace is expected from you when you are offended.

Peter asked about forgiving a brother. Most of the time forgiveness is easier when the offender is someone we like. In the parable, Jesus chose servants who worked for the same king. They knew each other, but their relationship was not specified. Forgiving a person in our circle is usually not as easy as forgiving a friend. If the offender is an unknown person or, even worse, an enemy, forgiveness is even more difficult. Nevertheless, as Jesus’ words show, we are expected to forgive.

Let us not rationalize our way into withholding forgiveness because we have no feelings toward the offender. Also, let us not consider a friend’s offence greater than others. Note that in Matthew’s version of the parable, there is no mention of the offending brother’s apology. Is an apology necessary? Is forgiveness contingent on the repentance of the offender? To the offender, an apology is good because it implies personal accountability for the offence. The remorseful offender may follow-up with acts of repentance (such as repaying the debt). But in Jesus’ way of thinking, forgiveness is not contingent on an apology or repentance; instead, it is a response to our being forgiven by God of more and greater offences. Jesus intends that we see ourselves as the servant whose debt was immeasuable.

At the cross, Jesus asked for forgiveness of those who did not realize what they were doing. They had neither apologized nor expressed remorse. They simply were acting out of ignorance, and his compassion toward them moved him to ask God to forgive them. Indeed, compassion for ignorance is another good reason to forgive; nonetheless, whether or not we feel compassion, we have reason to forgive because we have been forgiven.

The offence we experience from someone’s act against us is far less than the sum total of our offences against God. If we have trouble comprehending that fact, it would be helpful for us to spend some time in prayer and reflection so that our inner eyes may be enlightened about the truth concerning the enormity of our sin.

This parable also teaches us that forgiveness must go beyond outward expressions such as words, facial expressions, gestures, or other actions. Jesus spoke of forgiving from the heart. Reading Jesus’ words may convince us of the need to forgive, but reading does not change our hearts. Only the inner work of the Holy Spirit reaches our innermost intentions and motivations. So, it is vital that we open ourselves fully to the Spirit within us, who is there to lead and help. Prayer is a factor. Not only are we to pray for a forgiving heart, but we are to pray for those who have offended us. We may be pleasantly surprised on occasion to feel our hearts warming toward people when we earnestly pray for them and their particular needs.

Conclusion

The parable of the unforgiving servant packs two powerful messages: God’s amazing and unlimited forgiveness toward us, and our corresponding forgiveness of offenders because we have been forgiven. This parable can seem to have a dominant negative message about our failure to forgive. But Jesus intends that the message be to us both reassuring and convicting. We are reassured that the divine forgiveness given us is immeasurable and unlimited, and we are encouraged by that fact to respond, although on a much smaller scale, with immeasurable, unlimited forgiveness toward others. Amen.

Sermon for September 24, 2017

Scripture readings: Ex.16:2-15 and Ps. 105:1-6, 37-45 
(or Jonah 3:10-4:11 and Ps. 145:1-8) Phil. 1:21-30; Matt. 20:1-16

Sermon by Linda Rex from Mat. 20:1-16

GENEROSITY, FAIRNESS & GOD’S GRACE

Introduction

Last week, in the sermon from Matthew 18:21-35, we rejoiced in God’s unlimited, unmeasurable forgiveness. Because of what Jesus has done in our place and on our behalf, there is no debt we owe to God. The debt has been cancelled! It’s gone! Jesus, to whom all judgment has been given, left the judge’s seat, came down, took our place and paid our debt in full.

That is the reality. Yet, sometimes we live as though it’s not. Instead of partaking of the tree of life, we feed from the tree of good and evil—living as though we still owe God for our sins. But Jesus says to us: “The debt is gone—move on!”

Embracing God’s grace in Christ is how we need to live out our relationships: with God, with other people, with ourselves. But God does not force us to do so—we can choose to live as though there is still a debt to pay. When we die, we can say to God, “Sorry—I did my best to pay you back, but I failed.” How do you think God will reply? Perhaps he’ll say, “Well, okay, if that’s the way you want to play it—but my way is better. Jesus paid your debt—all of it. You don’t owe anything. It’s gone. Enter into the joy of the Lord!”

Do you think we’ll believe God’s declaration of grace then? If so, why don’t we believe it now, and live accordingly?

Today’s Gospel reading in Matthew 20 challenges us to answer that question. It challenges our tendency to think in terms of justice—of what we deem to be “just” and “fair.”

“The Eleventh Hour Laborers” by Luyken (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard

But then comes Jesus, who in Matthew 20:1-16 tells the parable of a man who owns a vineyard—a story by which Jesus invites us to think of God in perhaps a different way than we currently do. He is showing us that God’s grace is extended equally to everyone. All are included. In Christ, God has made a way for everyone to be part of his harvest.

When God calls us into relationship with himself, it’s not just so we can be good, moral people with well-behaved lives. We tend to put that little spin on it. God calls us into relationship with himself, saying, “You know what, you can be part of my family. Tell all the people you know this great good news. Tell them about me. Then, bring them along.”

God has a great harvest he is reaping and he is including us in it both as the fruit of the harvest and as harvest workers. He’s saying, “Let’s do this together!”

I remember as a mom how I would try to make something in the kitchen and the kids would come in. I’d say to them, “We’re going to make cookies today, kiddos!” But by the time we’re done, there’s flour everywhere and the cookies are kind of strange. But you know what? They still taste pretty good. However, the good part in this was not the cookies—it was the fun we had working together: the stories told, the laughter and even the crying shared.

God has not called us to be robots going around saying, “If I do something wrong, God will get mad at me.” No, he’s calling us into relationship with himself: “I know you’re going to trip and fall,” he says to us, “but I’ll be here. Let me help you up.”

In thinking about justice and fairness, it’s vital that we keep God’s kingdom values in mind. We need to remember that he has a crop he’s harvesting, which are disciples of Jesus. This is his kingdom work and he invites us to participate. But we tend to think in terms of doing things for God, and because we think that way, we think he owes us. This is where prosperity gospel thinking comes in.

But the true gospel says God owes us nothing! Note as well that he doesn’t freely give us eternal life so that everything in this life will be free of trouble. That’s not what he’s promised us. We are called to share in Jesus’ life, and sometimes that means sharing with Jesus in suffering.

No, we don’t follow Christ for the rewards. We don’t serve him to earn payment. Yes, Christ says we’ll receive blessings in this life and in the next. But it’s not the promise of blessings that draws us into sharing in the work Christ is doing to bring in the harvest. Instead, we work out of gratitude, because we love God and want to be with him. Then God provides for us as we participate. He comes alongside us and makes sure we are provided for. We’ll get a little deeper into that later.

In the parable, at the beginning of the day, the vineyard owner is thinking, “I’ve got this crop and it needs to be harvested. I’ve got to bring it in today.” So he goes to the marketplace to hire workers. He says: “Come work for me, and I’ll pay you a denarius,” which at that time was a typical day’s wage.

A denarius coin
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Remember that Jesus tells us to pray, “give us this day our daily bread”—to pray for what we need day-by-day. He assures us that God, who sees us and loves us, will take care of us. He assures us that his grace is enough, though it’s not always pleasant. Remember Paul’s “thorn in the flesh”? Three times he asked God to remove it. But God’s answer was “no,” and his reassurance to Paul was, “my grace is sufficient.” God sometimes says, “I’m not going to give you what you desire, but what I know you need. Trust me.” And Paul did. He wrote to Timothy, “godliness with contentment is great gain” (1 Tim. 6:6). That’s not always an easy lesson to learn, but it’s true.

Generosity

We don’t labor to earn God’s favor. We don’t labor to get God to feel better about us, or to smile upon us. We already have his favor. He already is smiling. Why then do we labor for the Lord? Well, it’s not to earn anything. We do so as a grateful response to God’s lavish grace. Because he is a generous God, we are a generous people

Fairness

The vineyard owner invited these people to be laborers in the harvest. As the day went along, he saw he needed more workers so he went back and saw people still hanging around without work. So he gave them work, saying, “I’ll give you what’s right.” The Greek word translated “right” can also be translated “fair.” In administering his grace, God is always right, he is always fair. But what is right and fair in God’s way of thinking, does not align with a legalistic way of thinking which says that what is fair is what we’ve earned. But let me ask you this: have we done enough to earn God’s grace? The answer, of course, is “no.” It’s a very good thing that God’s sense of fairness is based on his goodness and generosity, not on our performance. Why? Because our performance is pretty bad.

Yet we still sometimes imagine that God is treating us unfairly. Like the workers in the parable who had been working the longest, we might be saying to God: “I’ve been such a good person all these years. I’ve always tried to do the right thing. I’ve worked hard. You owe me!”

But being much greater than we are, God’s sense of fairness is much higher than ours. For God, fairness is about lavishing his love equally on all. It’s not about giving people what they deserve. Grace is precisely what none of us deserve, what none of us can earn no matter how hard or how long we work.

God’s grace

God lavishes his grace of forgiveness upon all in a way that is fundamentally equal, and in that sense “fair.” But please understand, God’s grace involves more than forgiveness. Did you wake up this morning? That was God’s grace. Did you deserve that? Did you earn that? No, it was a gift. It was God’s grace.

What Jesus is teaching us in this parable is that God’s kingdom values have to do with the grace of God being extended equally to all—equal, because there is no end to it. God has this amazing ability to do the same thing for everyone, while at the same time working with individuals in particular, even unique ways. Sometimes his logic escapes us, but we’ve learned to trust him.

I think about the time when, as a single mom, I was working in a nursing home and needed to know what time it was so I could be where I needed to be. Unknown to me, my watch had fallen off when I was leaving my car. Later I looked everywhere for the watch, and I was in a panic because I couldn’t find it—I didn’t have the money to buy another one. A couple of days later, as I got out of my car, I found it. I had been praying: “God, you know that I really need a watch. I’m going to have to go buy one.” I was sort of arguing with God over whether I should spend the money. And there, right in front of me, was my watch!

God often extends his grace to us in unexpected, even unusual ways. He knows our need, he knows what is best for us at any given moment. It might be small, it might be large, but it will always be an expression of God’s goodness and generosity in a way that is fundamentally fair, even when it doesn’t mean that God does all that we ask for. At times, I’ve had to grin and bear it. But at those moments when he knew it was important to my heart and life, God did what I needed, sending me the message, “Linda’, I’m with you. I’m carrying you. We’ll get through this together.”

It’s about trust, isn’t it? Trusting God to be who he says he is—the God of all grace. Are we willing to receive his grace as he gives it; when he gives it? Or are we clinging to thoughts like, “God’s I’ve earned this; I deserve this. God, you’ve got to help me, now!” Or perhaps we’re harboring thoughts like, “I’m going to hold these debts against the person who owes me. I want justice!” Either way, we block the flow of God’s lavish generosity, his amazing grace.

Conclusion

Dear ones, receive the grace God has given, the way he gives it, and when he gives it. Then give it away. It truly is a gift—and God keeps on giving it—again, and again, and again. What a blessing! Let’s close in prayer:

Thank you God for the limitless extravagance of your grace. What a blessing it is to live in relationship with you, knowing you are not a distant, cold, hard-hearted God, but a loving, kind Abba, Father—the kind who cares about the little things in our lives, and the big things as well. And even when it looks like things are a disaster, you’re present with us, working it out. Thank you for including us in your harvest work that we can participate with you in your kingdom even now. Lord, grant us the grace to receive the gifts of your grace as you give them, and to pour our hearts into whatever we are doing with you with joy and gratitude. We pray all this, thanking you through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.


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